Archives for June 2013

Stick a fork in me

Anyone care to guess at what exact moment I climbed out of the pool today?

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The next few days are going to be fun, too.  But hey, thanks to the Clutter Museum archive, I have some perspective: things could be worse.

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I’ve been experiencing what Fang and I term “bad brain chemicals” lately (and so has he, which sucks, as in the past our serotonin receptors have taken turns being on the fritz). Such chemical blues happen occasionally, and I muddle through, because, as I’ve noted before, I’m a high-functioning depressive–my sense of obligation to others remains stronger than the depression most days.

I’ve also put back on a few pounds–nothing like before, but enough that my clothes were fitting differently.  I’ve been around this block enough to know that depression + weight gain = time to change the diet and exercise regimen (but especially the diet).  I haven’t gone to the gym in, um, forever (note to self: cancel campus rec center membership) because it bores me, and in the summer, when I’m not on campus much, the gym feels very far away.  I do walk, however, and between a longish dog walk yesterday and a 2.5-mile foothills hike with the boy today, I’m already feeling better than I did three days ago.  (Not as fun: chasing a surprisingly fast dog through the neighborhood at a full sprint, for some distance, while still recovering from the latest bronchial plague. Legs = stiff; lungs = seared.)

Also, however, I’m doing the vegan and no-added-sugars-or-sweeteners thing again.  I’ve been mostly vegan since April 2012, excepting the occasional restaurant meal (I’m particularly susceptible to gourmet mac and cheese). While I can’t by any means claim to have kept up my sugar fast, over the past year, I’ve consumed probably one-quarter the sugar I have in previous years.


Goodbye, sweetheart. It’s not you–it’s me.

So, about this go-round: The first 72 hours are always difficult, but I’m in hour 74 now (excepting, I’m remembering now, one sweet non-vegan treat), so things are looking up. A couple more days and I expect the sugar cravings to lessen significantly, and at this point I’m able to resist their siren song because my mood has improved significantly.  Less sugar = less irritation and more energy.

We’ll see if I can make it a month, as I did last time.  In late July and early August, I’ll be in a situation that will make it difficult to stay vegan, but if I can eat vegan and sugar-free and get moderate exercise regularly for 30 days, I’ll be thrilled.

Anyway, I’m putting this post here as a sort of public accountability in case my mood and energy levels take a dive and aren’t sufficient motivation in themselves.  Feel free to use the comments to share your own goals for the same purpose.


Image by Yuichi Sakaraba, and used under a Creative Commons license.

The humanities as navel-gazing

David Brooks writes that the humanities went to hell in a handbasket half a century ago. He explains what humanities instruction used to be and what it should become once again.

The job of the humanities was to cultivate the human core, the part of a person we might call the spirit, the soul, or, in D.H. Lawrence’s phrase, “the dark vast forest.”

This was the most inward and elemental part of a person. When you go to a funeral and hear a eulogy, this is usually the part they are talking about. Eulogies aren’t résumés. They describe the person’s care, wisdom, truthfulness and courage. They describe the million little moral judgments that emanate from that inner region.

The humanist’s job was to cultivate this ground — imposing intellectual order upon it, educating the emotions with art in order to refine it, offering inspiring exemplars to get it properly oriented.

Somewhere along the way, many people in the humanities lost faith in this uplifting mission. The humanities turned from an inward to an outward focus. They were less about the old notions of truth, beauty and goodness and more about political and social categories like race, class and gender.

Specifically, he mentions we should study Pericles, Socrates, and Galatians.

Hmmmm. . .I wonder why the emphasis on such figures faded, to be replaced by cultural studies?

Let’s see. . .50 years ago was when? Ah, yes–1963–when the Civil Rights movement was exploding into the national consciousness. Funny that it was at that moment humanists in the academy felt it necessary to shift gears to consider race, class, and gender–to try to help their students make sense of the giant demographic, cultural, and economic shifts of the second half of the 20th century.  David Brooks would like us to go back to navel-gazing and the ancient world instead of studying how people make sense of and engage with a rapidly changing modern world.  (Yes, I get that we can learn lessons from those who came before us–I work as an historian, after all–but I’m wondering if there isn’t a statute of limitations on learning from others’ experiences. The men of the ancient world always felt remote and inaccessible to me, despite my excellent teachers.)

As someone who earned four degrees in humanities fields between 1993 and 2006, let me assure Mr. Brooks that I was indeed required to read the ancient classics, and students still read such works in the history department where I teach. However, in reflecting on my own soul and my place in the world, I found Thucydides and Plato less compelling than Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Virginia Woolf, Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, Langston Hughes, Cornel West, and countless other authors of the 19th and 20th centuries who shared their experiences of being pushed to the margins because they were women, queer, people of color, living with disabilities, or in some other way out of the mainstream.

What was your experience in your humanities courses, in high school or college or beyond?

Google Street View as time travel

I admit it–I’ve used Google Street View to revisit places I used to live, and it’s fun to see our cars still parked in the driveway or on the street.  The views will be updated eventually, of course, but I enjoy the feeling of being transported into the past when it’s presented by Google as if it’s the present.

Even more fun is when I happen onto a seam in the space-time fabric.  On Harrison Boulevard in Boise, for example, there’s a moment when the seasons suddenly change if you shift your view to the other side of the street:

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And at the corner of University and Capitol in Boise, taking one virtual step to the right jumps you back in time a few years, but it seems like a decade or more:

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Even better would be if Google made it possible to dive down through the different “layers” of its Street View drive-bys when they’re updated, instead of just overwriting the virtual landscape with the new images.  Google Earth already does have this capacity for some places, and third-party services like WhatWasThere and HistoryPin allow users to “pin” historical photos to specific locations on Google Maps.

What spatiotemporal quirks have you found in Street View?

“Big tent” technology

Let’s begin with a few U.S. maps published recently.

Here’s one, built at the National Day of Civic Hacking, of every public library branch (and a few bookmobiles) in the contiguous U.S.:

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And here’s a similar map of every museum in the lower 48:

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Note the dearth of such cultural institutions in large swaths of the western U.S.  Yes, some of that cultural hole can be attributed to less dense population patterns in the West, but it’s not as if there’s no one living in, working in, or visiting those areas.  Perhaps it’s not surprising that less dense, conservative states might not allocate sufficient funding to sustain cultural institutions. Indeed, even where museums do exist in the relatively sparsely populated Intermountain West and Great Basin, they are, with a few notable exceptions, not exactly distinguished institutions.

Even more significant is the giant western hole in the map of cities participating in the National Day of Civic Hacking:

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Now that I’ve spent three years in that region and have become familiar with its technological deficit—in terms of professional development but also of basic connectivity (in parts of Idaho, bears can take down the internet, and as recently as 2011, Idaho had the slowest internet speed in the nation)—I’m not surprised to see a complete lack of participation in the day of civic hacking.  Rather than advocating for public investment in educational and technological infrastructure—which might both make Idaho’s workforce more attractive to high tech companies and inspire individual Idahoans to launch start-ups and tech businesses—political “leaders” in Idaho are focusing on abolishing minimum wage laws and other government regulations that allegedly inhibit the growth of low-paying industries.

Let’s look beyond my current region, however. Imagine overlaying that civic hacking participation onto a map of the results of the last presidential election returns, especially one that represents results by county:

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It’s no wonder the Obama campaign was able to mobilize social media, big data, and related technologies so well in 2008 and 2012.  Republicans have taken notice, and cultural observers like Markos Moulitsas are pointing out that the Republican failure to take advantage of technology and data is less about “a lack of organization” than it is about “a lack of talent.”  Worse, as Moulitsas uses several examples to illustrate, when conservatives do engage with technology, they may be more likely to use it to close down access to information rather than open it up.

Big tent technology

As someone on the left side of the political spectrum, it would be easy for me to sit back, smirk, and enjoy watching conservatives’ lack of technological skill help to drive the Republican party into oblivion. Alas, this technological divide between red states and blue states has repercussions beyond who holds political office.  Of particular concern to me as a professor and a parent are career opportunities, particularly since my current state of residence appears to be putting more stock in attracting arms manufacturers and call centers than in cultivating a generation of civic-minded, technologically savvy workers.

I’ve said it here before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again: being a progressive means “big tent” thinking.  It means seeking justice and fairness and uplift for all people—even those who have political views I find repugnant. And so I’m saying those of us who have any tech savvy at all who live in red states need to help conservatives (and others) get their technological house in order.

Over the past 30 years, conservatives have ridden a wave of fundamentalist Christian indignation over demographic shifts and changing social mores. Accordingly, conservative political operatives have—at least in the public eye—invested more time and energy in developing rhetorical flourishes that manipulate feeling than they have in collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data. I’m not the first progressive to observe that conservatives are not interested in reliable evidence or carefully interpreting data. Both conservatives and liberals participate in social and mainstream media echo chambers that amplify and reinforce our beliefs, but in my experience, liberals are more likely to read widely, learning from a broad spectrum of voices in the humanities, social sciences, sciences, and arts.  That learning, I’ve observed, often includes a depth and breadth of knowledge about technology.

People from all over the political spectrum ought to be interested in hearing all voices, in having more conversations, in increasing the quality and quantity of civic discourse.  In the 21st century, that discourse involves a good deal of digital, networked technology.  We connect and communicate with it, and we wade into its ever-flowing streams of data, news, and information.  Again, in my experience (and as suggested by the maps above), those who identify with the political left are more likely to swim boldly into and try to make sense of—or even shape—these currents.

(It was at this point in my discussing this idea with her that a good friend pointed out I’m setting up a positivist narrative, one in which technological enlightenment leads to intellectual and political enlightenment of a group of people who can cling stubbornly to outdated ideals and dangerous cultural and economic practices. I don’t believe in technology as redemptive in and of itself, but I think in the case of Idaho and other conservative regions, a good dose of training in technological tools and languages–in the digital humanities–couldn’t hurt.)

In local practice

Let’s look at an example of this thinking in action.  Already my minor infusion of digital humanities practice into my classroom has revolutionized many students’ relationships with technology.  They write in their end-of-course reflections about how they had seen themselves as technophobic or technologically inept, and now they’re curious about digital tools and willing to experiment.  Of course, learning to use most apps doesn’t involve manipulating and visualizing data or writing code that can change the functionality of an app or website.  But my students’ growing confidence in their technical savvy has led them to  imagine developing apps–and in one assignment I had them write grant proposals to do so.  For some students, this app development plan took the form of investigating software development firms, but other students researched the ways they might build apps themselves.

And yes, at least half of my students from this past year consider themselves to be conservative, many of them profoundly.

How can we grow this kind of energy and curiosity, and teach these kind of tech skills more broadly?  Digital storytelling is a natural fit.  But I think we need to take the next step, too, and engage people who inhabit the vast unhacked spaces on the map in civic hacking, in the languages—rhetorical and computational—of the digital era.

If you have ideas on how to make this happen, especially face-to-face, and how to fund it, leave them in the comments.

(This post was inspired by a session I attended at AdaCamp San Francisco on resources for women new to coding.)